Ohio Town's Democrats See 'Hope' Differently

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

LIMA, Ohio -- A six-cylinder engine rolls down the conveyer belt and stops in front of Bo Huenke every 28 seconds. He attaches a metal pipe, twists in four screws with hands that suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and finishes just in time to stretch his back before the next engine arrives. His hands move from memory while his mind calculates the math: 28 seconds per engine, eight hours each shift, five days a week, 13 years until retirement.

Inside this Honda manufacturing plant built on top of an old pig farm, Huenke's only hope for distraction is a good argument with the other men who work on the line. They're mostly what he calls "good ol' boys" -- white, Catholic and descendants of Italian and German immigrants, just like him -- so liberal proclamations usually instigate heated debate. "Democrats are taking over Ohio," Huenke says to a chorus of protests. Or, "This war has been a disaster from Day One." But, every now and then, Huenke makes the rare political assessment that most people here seem to agree on.

"Obama, doesn't he sound a little naive?" asked Huenke, 52. "He stands up there, so optimistic, preaching about hope and change. It sounds great and everything, but come on. He doesn't quite get it."

Voters like Huenke present a difficult challenge to Sen. Barack Obama as he looks ahead to March 4, when primary battles with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Ohio and Texas threaten to halt his campaign's momentum. In Lima and other fading manufacturing towns, he must confront difficult questions that go to the heart of his candidacy and its appeal to a broad section of Americans:

Can grandiose visions of hope and change resonate in places where change -- in this case economic change -- has brought housing foreclosures and economic ruin, where hope means avoiding another round of layoffs? Can a candidate whose support has been based on African Americans and upper-middle-class whites transcend class and race in places where racial tension still colors everything?

When the Clinton and Obama campaigns set up field offices in Lima last week, they discovered a sad town of about 40,000 already at odds between black and white, between dreamers and realists. There are people here like Josiah Mathews, 25, a black man who believes Obama can help bring peace and prosperity to his home town. But there are also people like Huenke, white and working class, who sense a disconnect between Obama's inspirational rhetoric and life's daily struggles. They prefer Clinton for her experience and economic policies, which they believe might stabilize Lima's decline.

"A minority president or a woman president -- both are hard sells in Lima," Huenke said. "But Hillary's easier, because you also get Bill. When you're thinking politics around here, you've got to be practical."

Hoping for Stability

The Lima that Huenke grew up in was a canvas for big dreams -- a booming industrial town halfway between Dayton and Toledo where jobs outnumbered workers, trees lined the downtown square and a new airport opened a portal to the world. Huenke lived in a large house near Main Street with seven brothers and two sisters. The oil refinery gave his father regular raises. When Huenke left home to try college at Ohio State, he never doubted he'd return to Lima.

He came back in the late 1970s to open a restaurant, and he discovered a Rust Belt town that had lost its major railroad and its biggest bus company. Racial tension twice erupted into violence and riots that necessitated the presence of the National Guard. The city built low-income housing near Huenke's old neighborhood, and he eventually moved into the country. "I had a lot of those minorities around me," Huenke said, "and some of them were just causing trouble and collecting welfare."

Huenke's restaurant leaked money, then closed. He became a paramedic, driving an ambulance through a town much poorer than he remembered and dealing with big-city problems such as violent robberies and crack overdoses. When Honda called a decade ago to offer a $23-an-hour job, he hardly hesitated. Lima had lost 8,000 jobs in the previous 25 years; no decent-paying work was beneath him. "Yes," he said. "Thank you. I'll take it."

That decision has resulted in two hand surgeries and constant shoulder pain. "It's like getting beat up at football practice for eight hours," Huenke said, "but you do anything here for steady money." A divorce last year doubled Huenke's housing payment to $800 a month, and a faulty thermostat means the temperature in his house sometimes dips to 52 degrees. He plans to work at Honda until he's 65 so he can pay off his house and save some money. The day he retires, he wants to leave for Florida.

A lifelong Democrat, Huenke went to a rally in Columbus last month and decided that Clinton's economic and health-care ideas could help him endure another decade or so in Lima. He liked how the senator from New York outlined her plans with specifics. Obama, he thought, sometimes spoke about long-term goals and principles, which Huenke rarely had the leisure to consider.

He started sending e-mails to friends at 2 in the morning after a late shift at the plant last week, soliciting volunteers for Clinton. A few days later, he sat in a small meeting for supporters, where one person suggested that the group canvass all of the houses in Lima.

"Yeah, we might need to do that," Huenke said. "But there's some neighborhoods in this town where I don't want to be walking around, no matter what we're doing. We've got some slums now. You never know what's going to happen when you knock on somebody's door."

Hoping for Unity

Josiah Mathews walked out of his house dressed in a dark gray suit, with rings on both middle fingers and a scarf around his neck. He had carefully clipped his goatee and trimmed his mustache to a shadow before a full morning of meetings. At least until his factory shift started at 3:30 p.m., he had plenty of reasons to hope.

Mathews grew up only a block away in a neighborhood, South Union, where blacks were once forced to live by law. The single-story houses and apartments -- sometimes rented for as little as $200 a month -- have been worn by harsh winters, and some were abandoned long ago. Railroad tracks crisscross a half-mile behind Mathews's house, and smoke from the nearby oil refinery fogs the horizon.

During his childhood, Mathews dreamed of packing up for New York or Chicago. But during his sophomore year of high school, a few community organizations paid for him to make a service trip to Africa, and he returned with both perspective and a silent vow to repay their generosity. He would stay in Lima. He would help the town change.

Mathews worked to pay off his mother's house with jobs at a hotel, on the railroad and at a General Motors plant. He volunteered in a halfway house. Last year, he spent more than $5,000 of his own money on a losing campaign for an office on the city council. Still, progress in Lima sometimes felt "like pushing against a wall," he said. Minorities, who make up 27 percent of the town's population, hold only three or four positions on the 70-officer police force.

"You get a lot of rural people here, and all they know about black people is what they see on TV," Mathews said. "There's a blockage between the minority community and the government. It's not getting better, and that's the real problem."

Last month, a SWAT team shot a black mother and her infant son during a drug raid near Mathews's house, killing the mother. The incident brought old tensions to the surface in Lima; black pastors held community meetings, and national hate groups sent letters in support of the shooting. The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited. The police launched an internal investigation, and its conclusions are pending.

"Everybody's riled up and angry, and we don't even know what happened yet," said Carolyn Pennington, 67, a white woman who has lived in Lima for 35 years. "I was taking my grandson downtown to McDonald's, and I looked in my rearview mirror and my heart about stopped. There was a black guy riding my bumper, looking mean. I was terrified, and this old lady doesn't scare easy."

Said Mathews: "I've never once felt unsafe in my neighborhood. But you hear some things and see some things where there is just a lot of work that has to be done with race relations. We need something to unite us."

When Obama announced he was running for president a year ago, Mathews recognized the chance he'd been waiting for. In a town where a black police officer still strikes people as revolutionary, Mathews thought, what could redefine race more than a black president? Eager to volunteer, Mathews limited himself to one job for the first time in his adult life. His days are now divided in two: mornings for suits and community meetings about the senator from Illinois; afternoons for work boots, a camouflage Ford hat and a rain jacket, and a job at a General Dynamics factory that builds tanks for the war in Iraq.

"People at work tell me I'm voting for a layoff by supporting Obama," Mathews said. "But I'd rather not have a job if that's what it comes down to. This is a chance to make history."

Once a Republican stronghold, Lima could potentially swing Democratic in the general election this time around, locals said; the town voted to elect Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in 2006. Mathews believes that Obama can win the four delegates available in surrounding Allen County only if a higher percentage of minorities show up to vote. In recent elections, minorities have made up as little as 12 percent of the local electorate.

"There's this attitude that they can't change anything, so why show up?" said Gary Frueh, chairman of the Allen County Democrats. "But they can change a lot."

Determined to turn his neighbors into Obama supporters, Mathews wore a suit and traveled around South Union last week, meeting with pastors and community activists. Then, a few hours before he changed into his work clothes, he looked at vacant buildings downtown to select a location for the Obama office. With about five other Obama backers -- many of them white -- he toured a building in the center of the town square with plenty of street parking and lots of foot traffic out front. It was a prime location, and Mathews wondered if Obama's campaign would pay for it.

"If they don't, I'll just raise the money," he said. "Or I'll pay for it myself. The bottom line is we need that place. We've got to be in people's faces downtown."

Democrats First

Huenke avoids going downtown whenever possible. He prefers to spend most nights alone in his house with his 17-year-old dog, scanning Web sites on his computer for political gossip.

Longing for company one night last week, Huenke drove 20 minutes across town to visit Carolyn Pennington, a widowed Democrat whom Huenke considers a "second mother." They sat at her kitchen table, where they had met many times during the past six months to discuss retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as a potential vice president, Clinton's campaign tactics and the building momentum behind Lima's Democratic Party. Pennington sat under a window and wore a sweater knitted in the colors of the American flag. She lifted her glasses to rub her eyes.

Pennington told Huenke that she had just returned from the grocery store, where she overheard a young woman gushing about Obama. In the checkout line, Pennington confronted the woman. "Do you know his middle name?" she asked. "It's Hussein. Hussein."

Now, recounting the exchange, Pennington sighed. "It bothers me that these Obama people don't even know anything about him," she said. "They just don't know.

"I mean, don't get me wrong. He's all right. If he gets the nomination, well, we're going to have to vote for him and get behind him because we're Democrats above anything else. But I just don't like the preaching that he's doing. He sounds like an old Bible-thumper to me. I like being talked to. I don't like being yelled at."

Huenke nodded.

"I know what you mean," he said. "If Obama wins, I'll be campaigning for him tomorrow. We'll take the change and try to make the best out of it. There's never really any other choice."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company